Originally written on June 20, 2008.
All the excerpts used by this essay for reflection were taken from The Journals of Kierkegaard translated, selected and with an introduction by Alexander Dru, Harper and Brothers: New York, 1958.
by Pat Nogoy SJ
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” – Jean Paul Sartre
1841: Infandum me jubes, Regina, renovare dolorem [You ask me to renew, O Queen, an unspeakable grief!]
Regine Olsen—I saw her first at the Rørdams. I really saw her there before, at a time when I did not know her family…Even before my father died I had decided upon her…I read for my examination. During the whole of that time, I let her being penetrate mine. In August I returned. The period of August 9 till the beginning of September I used in the strict sense to approach her. On September 8 I left my house with the firm purpose of deciding the matter. We met each other in the street outside their house. She said there was nobody at home. I was foolhardy enough to look upon that as an invitation, just the opportunity I wanted. I went in with her. We stood alone in the living room. She was a little uneasy. I asked her to play me something as she usually did. She did so; but that did not help me. Then suddenly I took the music away and closed it, not without a certain violence, threw it down on the piano and said: Oh what do I care about music now! It is you I am searching for, it is you whom I have sought after for two years.
What Søren Kierkegaard wrote in his journal is not a simple example of documentation—a linear progression of events. From the title itself of the account, it can be gleaned how important Regine is in his life; the narration of events reveal more than what meets the eye. Further, the kind of genre (a journal) that this narration is categorized into indicates a rather deep impression Regine will leave in Kierkegaard’s personal life, beginning with his intense experience of love and the corresponding dynamics of action-reactions that it will cause. Regina appears larger than life for Søren (Is not that the case for every beloved in the lover’s eye?).
Indeed, Søren had already chosen Regine that moment he saw her. The period of the first meeting until his return witnessed how that choice evolved into “letting her being penetrate mine,” serving as evidence to what the French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion would write a century later, “no one falls in love involuntarily or by chance.” Søren, in his return, would plot to raise his pursuit of Regine to a higher level. Making up for lost time due to distance, he would let her know how he exactly feels for her. The honesty and intensity of Søren’s love for Regina is much felt in the way he describes how he violently put the distraction away (the music he first asked Regine to play to sort of break the ice). He simply confessed ardently, without mincing words, and letting the purity of his desire explode and overwhelm Regine. To this magnanimity, however, Regine replied with only silence. This concerned Søren much, enough for him to ask for a meeting together with Regine’s father.
Her father said neither yes or no but he was willing enough as I could see. I asked for a meeting: it was granted to me for the afternoon of the 10th [September]. I did not say a single word to persuade her. She said, Yes.
What a turn of events! Regine chose to bequeath Søren her loving Yes and this Yes cemented their identities as fiancées, and their relationship, an engagement. Søren’s pursuit ended with a crown of a happily ever after. It was a rather precious and propitious event. A perfect moment every lover and beloved desire, work for, dream of, and die for.
Alas, as if Cupid played a cruel trick, the perfect moment would turn out to be a perfect nightmare!
But inwardly; the next day I saw that I had made a false step. A penitent such as I was, my vita ante acta, my melancholy, that was enough. I suffered unspeakably at that time.
What seemed to be a propitious happily ever after became the inauguration of Søren’s tormenting suffering that would be his source of haunting desolation (and some consolation) until his death. Søren suffered from depression or some psycho-emotional imbalance that greatly impaired his capacity to relate (Melancholia is a condition characterized by sudden gloom, irritability, and sadness). Given this condition, Søren decided that it would be best to break off the engagement and let Regine go as he could let her partake of his own suffering.
My relation to her may, I truly believe, be called unhappy love—I love her—I own her—her only wish is to remain with me—her family implore me—it is my greatest wish—and I have to say no.
Reality of Unfreedoms
Freedom appears to exist in two modes: external and internal. In Søren’s case, he was perfectly free the moment he saw Regine. He was unattached and so was she. There was no moment of coercive force or impediment coming from the State, families, or friends. Though there was competition (Schegel) in winning her heart, Søren was perfectly aware of his freedom of choice. What Søren and Regine experienced in their engagement was a perfect moment of freedom when they exchanged Yeses to one another.
However, there is another mode of freedom that is real and concrete. Though externally, Søren did not feel any impediment, he suffered much inside. He felt chained by his melancholia, impairing what could have been a perfect offering. The beauty of the beloved commands a paramount offering. It is to offer one’s best and as much as possible, to weed out one’s worst. Søren saw how his frailties coloured much his offering. The best of who he is and what he is capable of were shrouded by his powerful melancholy. Upon seeing Regine and her intense devotion to him, he became aware of his unworthiness. The beauty of the beloved does cast light on who the lover is and Søren found himself wanting. He decided upon his unworthiness. He could not let Regine suffer.
Søren’s condition is an evidence of human frailties that compounds the already limited essence of being human. To be human is to be trapped in time and space, to be earmarked for death from the moment of birth, and to live within a set order. Though there is freedom, man concretely feels its limitation. Though he can command his given faculties to act and make choices that will affect his becoming, this faculty of choice limits the possibilities he can enact. It is a lived oxymoron—limited freedom.
The limitation of possibilities is compounded and felt given human frailties or disabilities that can either be physical, emotional, intellectual, or psychological. Deficiencies establish a perimeter on what can be possible and probable at any given moment. They intensify the experience of limitation aside from the actual bearing of the deficiency itself. These imperfections vary with people. Some are changeable through time like some physical defects can nowadays be addressed by technology. Some are not changeable but manageable like tempers and attitudes. Some are harder to manage like psychological traumas (skeletons in the closet, so to speak), mental illnesses, or personality imbalances such as bi-polarity, megalomania, schizophrenia, and depression. Collectively, human beings carry various demons or unfreedoms. The weight of human frailties is bore in each experience of freedom, an external condition found in every lived experience. One can only imagine Søren’s intense condition enough to challenge his capacity to go beyond or transcend them. He describes it as a curse and rightfully so, since it has impaired him in honouring his engagement. Its enormous weight severely limited what he can give to Regine. I would share my happiness with her, Søren writes, and not my sorrow—then the last would be worst than the first.
How free are we when we love?
Jean Paul Sartre describes human freedom as a condemnation, a sentence of consignment to danger, harm, or hell. On closer reading, freedom itself is not a condemnation but what makes it damning is the responsibility that accompanies it. Sartre writes how once thrown into the world, man is responsible for everything he does. Man is accountable in the condition of freedom (again, another oxymoron). The freedom of choice does not exempt man from his responsibility for his choices directly affect the world where he is thrown. This is true especially in the case of the beloved and the lover. In coming to terms with his unfreedom and the whirlwind of suffering it can possibly cause, Søren glimpsed a future that is not fit for his queen. In weighing his options in deep reflection, he consigned himself to God’s punishment (as he describes it) and decided to make what he considered a greater act of love. Given his limited and impaired condition, he chose to love Regine by letting her go. But in so far as I was what, alas, I was, I had to say that I could be happier in my unhappiness without her than with her; she had moved me and I would have liked, more than liked, to have done everything for her. As assessed, the responsibilities that love demands could not be fulfilled since he judged that he might be unable to transcend his limitations; Regine would eventually end up miserable. He saw that it is best to sacrifice his desire for Regine in order to abandon her to another who will perfectly love her. In choosing to do the higher form of loving by letting go, Søren struggled to lose her.
What I have lost, the only thing I loved…You say: she was beautiful. Oh what do you know about it; I know it, for her beauty cost me tears—I myself bought flowers with which to adorn her, I would have hung all the adornments of the world upon her, though only as they served to bring out all the hidden beauty within—and as she stood there in all her array—I had to go as her joyful look, so full of life, met mine—I had to go—and I went out and wept bitterly.
How easy it is to say love till the end. How comfortable it is to whisper forever. How romantic it is to believe the love will conquer all. Yet reality has a way of grounding those intoxicated with eros. In reality, loving means embracing everything, including the part that suffers, that which is not palatable, that which is hard to manage, or that which is beyond the measure of reasonable justice. Perhaps, this is the reason why love is equated to madness for it is only a mad person that can stay and love a person who is diagnosed as mad. It is madness to subject oneself to the suffering of another. It is madness to have faith in destiny or universe, having no practical idea on how to live each day with a person who suffers either with varying mood swings, physical defects, emotional insecurities, psychological wounds, degenerative diseases, or losing memory. For Søren, if the lover really cares for the beloved, he will find it totally unjust and deplorable to make her suffer. What makes all these possible are unfreedoms. Such unspeakable grief! Such condemnation! Søren thought he was ready to marry but he was not.
And so we parted. I spent the whole night crying on my bed.
How free are we when we love?